Writing headlines is one of the hardest jobs at a newspaper. The available space is small, so the head can have only a few words, but it has to reflect the story accurately. Because readers see it first, word choices in a headline can alter how the entire rest of the story is interpreted. Choosing the wrong word can get editors in hot water.
The front page of last Saturday’s New York Times included this headline: “Wild Ride and Dizzying Crash for Reluctant King of Crypto.” It was about Sam Bankman-Fried, the 31-year-old former cryptocurrency mogul, now convicted of seven counts of fraud and conspiracy for stealing billions from clients.
I read the article, waiting for the part that would explain in what way he was “reluctant.” I learned that he was at one point said to be worth $23 billion, that he “partied with stars and big shots,” that he lived in a $35 million penthouse, that he thought he might become president of the U.S., that he didn’t read books, and that he was happiest when playing video games. Nothing in the story indicated reluctance.
It’s worth noting that the article now appears on the Times website with a slightly different headline: “Sam Bankman-Fried’s Wild Rise and Abrupt Crash.” Did someone at the Times have the same reaction I did after that edition went to press?
If so, I sympathize. Headlines at the Independent are often rewritten very late at night, when fatigue can lead to lapses in attention and judgment. And we do sometimes get complaints. One loyal subscriber took issue with our billing of Jill Biden’s visit to the Outer Cape this past July: “Provincetown’s Political Donor Class Gears Up for 2024.” “It’s wrong to single out people working hard for the good as a wealthy ‘class’ when the phrase ‘class war’ is in the air,” she wrote.
When plans surfaced to bring a mobile “pregnancy resource center” to the Cape, we thought hard about what to call the unit in the headline. We decided on “anti-abortion center” rather than “clinic,” which is what its operators call it, because we concluded that was more accurate. Reader Nora Mann thanked us for that one.
One-column-wide heads on the front page are the hardest to write because the space is so tight. I have a system for calculating what will fit. Each letter in the alphabet is assigned a width value: almost all capital letters and lower-case “m” and “w” equal 3; most other lower-case letters equal 2; capital “I,” lower-case “f,” “i,” “j,” “l,” “r,” and “t,” and spaces equal 1. The total for any one line can’t exceed 29.
Do the math for our Oct. 12 headline “Gay Community Faces Increased Risk of Dementia”: “Gay Community” equals 27; “Faces Increased” equals 29; “Risk of Dementia” equals 29.
Short words, obviously, are great for heads. My all-time favorite headline was in the Times in 1997: “When Big Squid Mate, It’s a Shot in the Dark.”